On Individual Responsibility

August, 2020

Lincoln – I am writing this before any in my circle of family and friends are taken down by the coronavirus pandemic, so it can't be said it is written out of personal anguish or bitterness. 

But it's hard to imagine becoming more disgusted with the situation under any future circumstances, even loss of loved ones.

What has the country come to?  I see little willingness hold anyone accountable for the unfolding disaster, or for people to take individual responsibility for their role in it.   

Nebraska newspapers, which I read daily, show remarkably little public reflection as to what got us into a situation that is destroying lives and livelihoods, or how we can get out of it as quickly as possible.  Typically, the newspapers have several articles bemoaning the loss of football before noting the loss of mere people, usually nameless.

In the Nebraska press, broadcast and print, the concept of accountability is rarely approached.  Elections have consequences.  Accountability ultimately would involve a majority of Nebraskans looking in the mirror with appropriate soul-searching.  Although Donald Trump, for whom a majority of Nebraskans voted, did not create the coronavirus, his inept handling of it has made it much worse than it had to be, by a reasonably calculated factor of about three.  Other comparable western democracies have done demonstrably better to meet the challenge.

I want to ask a question now, not over a grave or holding the ashes of a loved one: whatever made you, my fellow Nebraskans, vote for a president who had no experience in government whatsoever, had no military service, was a serial bankrupt, a philanderer, an indecent television buffoon with an obvious tendency toward megalomania?  Why would you risk your country and the fate of us all to such a person?

The other political party gave you a choice.  She was not a criminal or murderer, as ridiculously alleged.  If you did not like the choices presented, for valid reasons as you saw them, there was the option of not voting at the top of the ticket.  No one can say how the Democratic candidate would have performed as president, but it cannot escape notice, in the summer of 2020, that the best responses to the pandemic worldwide have been those of women leaders.  She could hardly have done worse in stemming the largest health and economic catastrophe of our lifetime.

Did you vote as you did because of how your neighbors were voting, because of what you saw on television or social media?  I understand the impulse.  I also understand that the likes of such a campaign have not been seen since that orchestrated by the incredibly effective public opinion manipulator Josef Goebbels.

Granted, much of today's media messaging, in service to the man who would break democracy to his will (and in service to their own bottom lines), sounds persuasive.  It makes lies of truth, and truth of lies, at a level not seen in decades.  Many people are susceptible to the inducements, to peer pressure, to group-think.

But what about individual responsibility, or the lack of it, that favorite fallback of so many to explain the misfortunes of the world?

I look in vain for reports of Nebraskans taking individual responsibility to accept a thoughtful measure of accountability for the wholly unnecessary extent of the pandemic.  Newspaper editorials search for safe topics, to avoid having to offer an opinion concluding that you-reap-what-you-sow.  I've seen no interviews of business people, justifiably distressed by the turn of events, asking how they voted.  When nursing homes are quarantined in counties that voted overwhelmingly for Trump, no reporters ask the residents if they have any regrets about how they voted, although that should be an obvious question.

That assumes, of course, that such residents know America is doing poorly among peer countries.  They may not know.  As Goebbels boasted in 1940, “There are so many lies that truth and swindle can scarcely be distinguished. That is best for us at the moment.”

Personally, I also believe in individual responsibility, insofar as a person is capable of taking it.

So if Covid strikes me, or near me, I'm not likely to accept any condolences from those who bear a share of responsibility, but won't take it.  If anyone should say "I'm sorry for your loss," I will ask, "Are you sorry for your vote?"

Berlin and China, Biden and Trump

August, 2020

Berlin – There are not many occasions these days to write of Berlin, because as an American I can't travel there.  We in the USA have failed to respond adequately to the Covid-19 pandemic to be allowed to travel to such places.  It is a shameful and sobering development.

Sad as I am about it, I am nevertheless grateful to generations of post-WWII Americans and Germans alike who, sweeping away the ashes of fascism, put together a different Germany for our time, with the kind of scientific acumen and political leadership to face down a pandemic.  We may yet need the example of Germany to save our own country.

In the second half of the 1940s, far-sighted Americans like George Marshall, Lucius Clay, and John J. McCloy laid the groundwork for democratic, constitutional government in Germany.  They worked with wise German chancellors who in time formed alliances spanning different German political constituencies to form an enduring social compact.

I've lived and worked in Germany in six of the eight decades since WWII.  Some of that was in the U.S. military and some in various academic institutions.  Looking back with the benefit of hindsight, I now appreciate more fully the joint services commendation I received while working at the U.S. European Command in Stuttgart, for "exceptionally meritorious achievement."  At the time, I thought it was over the top, as I was just doing my work as a naval officer assigned there.  Now I see it as integral to the establishment of the successful and enduring democracy that Germany has become.

We are going to need Germany's help beyond the issues of the pandemic.  Thomas Friedman outlines why in his perceptive analysis, "To Deal with China, Trump Should Learn German." His reasoning:

The Cold War with the Soviet Union was fought and won in Berlin. And the looming Cold War with China — over trade, technology and global influence — will be fought and won in Berlin.

As Berlin goes, so goes Germany, and as Germany goes, so goes the European Union, the world’s biggest single market. And whichever country — the United States or China — is able to leverage the European Union on its side in the competition for whose technology standards, trade rules and technology will prevail will set the rules for global digital commerce in the 21st century.

“The reason that the United States was on the winning side of the three great conflicts of the 20th century — World War I, World War II and the Cold War,’’ said Michael Mandelbaum, author of “The Rise and Fall of Peace on Earth,” “is that we were part of the strongest coalition. The World War I coalition we joined belatedly. The World War II coalition we joined less belatedly. The Cold War coalition to defeat the Soviet Union, we organized. This should have been the model for dealing with China.’’

Relations between Berlin and Washington are now at their lowest ebb in decades.  Germans express pity for the situation into which Americans have placed themselves.  Many Americans, of course, agree and cannot wait for the opportunity to get back to reaping the benefits of decades of investment in having a strong strategic partner in Europe. 

The question I see, as a person with one foot in Berlin and another in the U.S. midwest, is whether American heartland voters — perhaps the key to the upcoming elections — will choose to deal with China through Trump's tariffs and his federal takeover of farmers' livelihoods, or through Biden's approach to deal with China through alliances among partners like Germany.

Just a few years ago, the answer to that would be easy, as both the Republican and Democratic parties believed in free trade and strong international alliances.  Smoot-Hawley tariffs and America First isolationism were failures, by consensus, tried and abandoned.  No more.  Trump's federal checks to farmers, made necessary by his tariffs, are quickly making de facto socialists of many in farm country.  There is irony in this, even as Trump claims Biden is a socialist, despite Biden's record of forty-seven years in public service to the contrary.

We are beyond irony in this election; we are choosing either to embrace our past accomplishments and rise to meet the China challenge, or succumb to China through policies that toss aside what we spent decades to build. 

Omaha and Wichita, Buffett and Koch

August, 2020

Lincoln – Omaha and Warren Buffett come out the clear winners over Wichita and Charles Koch in a matchup to determine which has the better record for creating local prosperity.

The analysis by the LA Times looks mostly at philanthropic leadership in the two cities but also dives into political theory.

Charles Koch is an ideologue with an agenda to cut government spending and regulation at every opportunity at every level. His agenda, built on dubious economic and political theories, is aggressively hostile to governments good, bad, and indifferent.  Koch support was instrumental in electing Sam Brownback governor of Kansas, which the state came to regret for the incredible damage he inflicted on it, especially to public schools ("government schools" to Koch followers).

Warren Buffett stakes out a different position toward government.  He favors higher taxes on people like himself and he supported Hillary Clinton for president in 2016.  While his investments, unfortunately, often do not show much regard for social consciousness and responsibility,* his pragmatism and philanthropic spirit have rubbed off on many in the Omaha community, and it is much the better for it.

Which is not to say that Koch is without influence in Nebraska.  The Nebraska statehouse has been controlled for many years by Koch-think.  As a result, no one these days would seriously hold up Nebraska state government as a good model of competent administration.  Nebraska's human services and corrections departments are Exhibit A.  The inept handling of the coronavirus pandemic by the governor and his state health director, who are at odds with the medical community and with science itself, are further degrading Nebraska's once-excellent reputation for good government. 

What is striking in Nebraska is the split in the business community between the big-business, civic minded leaders based mostly in Omaha and influenced by Buffett, and the smaller business leaders outside that circle who have spent years in thrall of Koch.

The latter, in my view, have made a huge mistake, which is now becoming obvious.  For years they denigrated government, ridiculed it, cut into it wherever possible to make its shortcomings purposely inevitable.  They did not press for competence in government.** Now, when other countries and localities have the competency to deal with catastrophes like a pandemic, we don't, and we are in big trouble.

Want schools open?  Want Nebraska football back?  Run from Koch-think as fast as you can.

As I write this, Omaha's business and civic leaders are working to combat the spread of the coronavirus by advocating a government mandatory mask requirement.  Ironically, strong evidence of mask effectiveness from Kansas, a state fighting back from years of Koch domination, is pointing the way.

* Buffet investments push sugary drinks even as we know they are a leading cause of chronic and deadly diseases; his newspaper companies were supported by exploitation of student loan borrowers at predatory for-profit colleges (Kaplan profits kept the Washington Post afloat until it was sold to Jeff Bezos).
** Just to be clear, I'd like to think I take a backseat to no one when it comes to rooting out waste, fraud, abuse, and mismanagement in government.  This is part of demanding competence.

Ricketts' "Natural Experiment"

August, 2020

Lincoln – Nebraska Governor Ricketts has, unwittingly, created a "natural experiment" to test the effect of mandated masks on the spread of the coronavirus.  Although he threatened to take legal action against a mask mandate in Lincoln and Lancaster County, the local mandate nevertheless went into effect three weeks ago.  Conversely, his threats and intimidation of Omaha and Douglas County officials worked.  No mask mandate there, although that may soon change.

Natural experiments are often used in evidence-based scientific research when it would be unethical to set up a more rigorous experiment that denied potentially life-saving treatments to a group of participants.  Natural experiments are nevertheless valid and, when carefully observed, often considered nearly the equivalent of randomized trials. 

Since March, Lancaster County has had a Covid-19 per capita case rate of 52.4 % of that of Douglas County.  But in the past seven days (as of August 8), when the effect of Lancaster's mask mandate would be expected to show up, that rate has dropped to 47.4%.

This is not a controlled experiment, of course; no natural experiments are.  But its results certainly support a hypothesis that mask mandates matter.*

Governor Ricketts has stubbornly insisted on his view that mask requirements are counterproductive, in that they encourage people to resist them.  At the same time, he persists in trying to make hospital bed availability his "North Star" in shaping coronavirus policy.  One might ask if assuring Nebraskans that a hospital bed awaits them if they catch the disease is not itself counterproductive to getting them to mask up, voluntarily or otherwise.

The numbers of the natural experiment are sufficiently bracing that the Omaha World Herald has done a front-page article on them.  I am also glad to see that the University of Nebraska Medical Center has clearly broken with the governor.  It's long overdue.  UNMC should never have allowed itself to be misused for political purposes early in the pandemic, when the governor used UNMC personnel as props for his unscientific views.  If UNMC wants to compete to become a world-class center to combat infectious diseases, its not helpful to be located in a hot-spot under the influence of a governor who won't be guided by epidemiological evidence.

* Another natural experiment has happened in Kansas, with even more striking results. See: https://www.wibwnewsnow.com/kdhe-kansas-experiment-shows-masks-work/

Post script August 12, 2020:  the Lancaster per capita case rate had fallen further to 36.6% of that of Douglas County on the last day of the Rickett's experiment, before Omaha put in its own mask requirement. 

Who Sponsors NU Football?

August, 2020

Lincoln – With the announcement of a University of Nebraska football schedule this fall, questions need to be asked.  If games are televised, who will be the sponsors?  And why does this matter?

I'm surely not the only person who likes to watch the games but grimaces through the commercials.  The ads are sometimes so bad I think it would be better not to watch at all, and certainly it should be beneath NU to accept money from inexcusable exploitation of unwary viewers.

In 2010, Nebraska played the University of Washington in the "Bridgepoint Education Holiday Bowl."  This immediately raised eyebrows.  Bridgepoint Education, a for-profit company that operated Ashford University, among others, was under investigation for fraud that year, a fact widely known.  Its recruiting methods included the typical boiler-room call centers that contacted potential students incessantly with high pressure tactics.

The PBS program Frontline exposed Ashford tactics: “Create a sense or urgency … Push their hot button … Don’t let students off the phone .. Dial, dial, dial.”

Bridgepoint Education put thousands of students into debt before they dropped out, their lives ruined financially.  

Yet all during the 2010 bowl game, commercials ran over and over touting this institution alongside the names of Nebraska and Washington, in an attempt to associate legitimate universities with a dubious one.  There was no avoiding it, as the announcers continually repeated the name "Bridgepoint Education Holiday Bowl" and promoted Ashford University.  NU lost the game but got a $2,130,000 payout.  To my mind, that money is tainted.  

The NU Regents should never have agreed to such a notorious sponsorship.

In 2016, two of us watched NU play in a televised game shortly before the November elections.  We were astonished to see a political commercial imply that the Democratic candidate was a murderer and traitor.  It was malevolent stuff, running three times in the midst of the game during time-outs.  The idea of the commercial placement was obviously to create a sense that the allegation must be true, or else NU would not allow its close juxtaposition with Nebraska football, and the implicit endorsement of the content of the commercial.  

The NU Regents should never have allowed their most visible sports program to have partisan political sponsorship, implicitly or explicitly.  There is always an option not to sign on the dotted line unless NU has the ability to protect its reputation.  

Now it is 2020 and the student loan mess, driven in part by unscrupulous for-profit colleges, has burgeoned.  The coronavirus pandemic, abetted by a failure of presidential leadership, has nearly killed off the football season (and it may yet).  

Those commercial sponsorships of NU football didn't look good at the time, and they decidedly aren't looking any better in retrospect.  They were shameful then, and they are appalling now, given what has happened since.  As a Nebraska citizen and taxpayer (and two-time NU graduate), I expect more of the NU Regents, to defend the university as a center of scholarship and integrity, and to take action so that these missteps are never repeated.